‘Cities aren’t structures: cities are people’

In a post this week, the St. Louis-focused blog nextStL ticks through all the big money silver bullet projects in downtown St Louis that failed in their ultimate objective:  to revive that city’s downtown.

I am sad to say I have not yet been to St. Louis, which sounds like a place rich in history, but other developments in Detroit this week suggest that it could sorely use nextStL’s reminder.

There are parts of Detroit that have improved since I arrived there in 2007.  For the most part, downtown is not one of them.  The stretch of Woodward between Campus Martius and Grand Circus Park has seen a particularly appalling decline in those four years:  at this point, I think I could count the number of occupied storefronts on that strip of several blocks on the fingers of one hand.

This makes the almost manic reaction to announcements of $221 million in improvements to Cobo Center, home of the North American International Auto Show, a bit more understandable:

The project will be ready by the 2014 North American International Auto Show, and it will “open up” Cobo to the Detroit River with a new atrium entrance.. Many of the changes will create what promises to be dramatic new vistas of Cobo from East Jefferson and from Windsor…

The Cobo authority will borrow the money through a bond sale to pay for the upgrades. Bonds would be paid back using Cobo revenues plus subsidies from the state’s Convention Center Development Fund, which receives liquor and hotel tax revenues from Southeast Michigan.

The Detroit News’ Daniel Howes never wastes the opportunity for hyperbole, and his post on the Cobo announcement was no exception:

Who says the self-defeating politics of southeast Michigan can never change or that Detroit cannot reap the benefit of a repolished jewel without being expected to pay all the bills?…

Realization of a Cobo makeover underscores the positive evolution of southeast Michigan’s political factionalism and the ability of leaders to shape competing interests into shared goals.

Howes is justified in taking comfort from the newfound spirit of cooperation among the Cobo authority, which until the last year or two was riven by typical nasty strife between its suburban members and the city.

It was then ironic that, as I proceed through Triumph of the City, Glaeser begins his discussion of urban decline with the following observations:

The hallmark of declining cities is that they have too much housing and infrastructure relative to the strength of their economies… The folly of building-centric urban renewal reminds us that cities aren’t structures: cities are people…

Even before the flood, New Orleans had done a mediocre job caring for its poor.  Did it really make sense to spend billions on the city’s infrastructure, when money was so badly needed to help educate the children of New Orleans?  New Orleans’ greatness always came from its people, not from its buildings…

Perhaps the most common error was thinking that these cities could build their way back to success with… (projects like the People Mover or the RenCen or Cobo Hall)

I’ve been guilty of this line of thought too, salivating with anticipation over projects like the Woodward light rail line, which is currently in the midst of a seemingly interminable planning and review.  (Seriously, if we see ground broken prior to Election Day 2012 I will eat my hat.)   All the wonderful and arguably much-needed renovations to Cobo or the Book Cadillac, the construction of the rail line, the massive investment in the Gateway Project at the border crossing with Canada — without advancing the city’s human capital, are these for naught?

Of course not.  Much of what makes New Orleans so peerless is its unrivalled preservation of its precious and unique building stock, and failure to maintain infrastructure, after all, was THE direct cause of the horrific destruction that followed the hurricane.  Likewise, I am confident the millions upon millions invested in opening up Detroit’s riverfront, luring people downtown to ice skate at Campus Martius, restoring and maintaining its endangered Jazz Age architectural treasures, enabling Cobo to retain the auto show, and getting cross-border truck traffic off residential streets, have or will more than pay for themselves over our lifetimes.

But Glaeser helps to reinforce my growing concern that both Gov. Snyder and Mayor Bing, for all their good intentions and the vast improvement they represent over their predecessors, still fail to appreciate the single most crucial, obvious, and proven ingredient to urban recovery:  education.  Governor Snyder has opted to cut funding for it in order to slash business taxes;  Mayor Bing has consistently refused to show leadership amidst the crisis of his city’s schools.  I am lucky to be able to live in a community, Ann Arbor, that owes its very existence to education and appreciates its value;  but it troubles me that that even in 2011 so many of our leaders still don’t get it — that so many southeast Michigan voters still don’t get it — and it does not make me optimistic about the region’s future.


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